Captain of Toronto in 2014, Caldwell has sent out a strong message to MLS.

Steven Caldwell: “Sky’s the limit” for Toronto FC’s sensational rebuild


Barking out orders to a bunch of local youth players on a cold, wet and misty morning in the Glasgow suburbs last autumn, it was clear for all to see that Steven Caldwell’s leadership skills are second to none.

After spending his career as a central defensive stalwart with various Premier League teams in England, Caldwell oozes experience and composed confidence. His career has seen him represent Scotland, play in the UEFA Champions League and spend several seasons in England’s top-flight.

WATCH: Seattle vs. Toronto FC, 4:30 p.m. ET live on NBCSN and online

But now arguably his biggest challenge awaits, as the veteran Scottish defender captains Toronto FC. Caldwell, 33, arrived in Major League Soccer midway through the 2013 season and signed a permanent deal to stick around in what could be a breakout season.

Following a major cash injection from TFC’s owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) over the offseason, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley arrived to much fanfare as Toronto’s much-anticipated 2014 season kicks off away to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN, 4:30pm ET and online via Live Extra) with the rest of the league casting a watchful eye on Ryan Nelsen’s revolution on the banks of Lake Ontario.

Expectation levels at TFC are high after several below-par seasons and not a single playoff appearance in their seven-year MLS history.

“We’ve got a great front office, great coaching staff, great players and a fantastic city. We’ve got everything here to be a major force in world football,” Caldwell said. “MLS is growing at such a rapid rate, one or two teams are going to rise from MLS and become a global brand. That’s what we want to be. As players we have to start making playoffs and winning MLS Cup’s, once that happens I believe this club can be huge.”

Going back to that opening image of Caldwell coaching in his native land, I was fortunate enough to work alongside him in a professional capacity back in November 2012 as we both completed our UEFA B coaching license in Scotland. A calm coach who knew when to step in and when to let sessions flow, Caldwell’s aura off the pitch was indicative of a leader who lets his boots and actions do the talking.

source: AP
Clint Dempsey and Seattle are Toronto’s opponents, as TFC’s much-anticipated season starts with a bang live on NBCSN this Saturday.

“We are expecting big things, but we know it’s not going to be easy,” Caldwell said of TFC’s hopes for 2014. “There are a lot of very good, established teams in this league. We’ve got a lot of new guys trying to gel, it’s going to take a little bit of time. But with the quality that we have we’re hoping for at least the playoffs and then to try and push for MLS Cup. That’s the aim.”

MLS Season Preview: Toronto FC

That task of launching a monumental turnaround in Toronto — the franchise has failed to win more than 10 MLS games in a single season since they arrived in 2007, plus have a record of 17-51-34 over the last three campaigns — is not an easy one, and Caldwell accepts that.

TFC have suddenly vaulted from a team used to propping up the standings to a favorite for the Eastern conference and MLS Cup. Without even kicking a ball in 2014. Dealing with those expectations and fostering a winning mentality at TFC, where struggles have been commonplace for most, if not all, of the teams existence, is easier said than done.

“We have got to accept that responsibility and take that pressure on,” Caldwell said. “It will come with the players we’ve signed, but we need to embrace that and enjoy the challenge of having to win every week. That’s a little bit new to Toronto Football Club. Hopefully we can rise to that challenge and be the team everybody wants to beat.”

As for Toronto’s season opener, it could hardly be tougher. A trip to CenturyLink Field is something most teams and players dread, as Seattle’s talented squad, in front of their sizable, loud home crowd, makes for a tough environment. But Caldwell is the type of character who thrives in a cauldron of animosity. And the 6-foot-3 Scotsman revealed his side are ‘champing at the bit’ to get their season underway, after being forced to watch on during opening weekend as TFC had a bye-week.

source: Getty Images
A leader on and off the field, Caldwell has slotted in superbly at the heart of TFC’s defense.

“It is a huge game, they’re expecting a massive crowd, so it will be a very exciting game to play in,” Caldwell said. “Seattle have got some top players, they’ve brought Clint Dempsey back to MLS and are going to be a challenge. We understand it’s going to be a tough, tough game. But we are of the caliber now that we feel like we can go anywhere and achieve results. We have to be hard to beat, first and foremost, but our quality means we’re capable of winning most, if not every, game.”

That new-found star quality Caldwell speaks of comes mostly from the acquisition of Bradley, the U.S. international midfielder. Arriving from Italian giants AS Roma for $10 million in January, and reportedly paid $5.8 million a year in wages, Bradley is the focal point of TFC’s revolution. On Saturday fans across the USA and Canada will be tuning in to watch Bradley go head-to-head with USMNT colleague Dempsey, as two of MLS’ poster boys square off.

In terms of settling back into MLS with Toronto, it’s a case of so far, so good, for the “General,” according to Caldwell.

“I’ve been very, very impressed. He’s a very mature young man and a fantastic player,” Caldwell said. “Michael is a real winner, which is very exciting for us. He’s going to be a major player for this football club for many years to come. It’s a big coup for us to have such a quality player coming from a huge team like AS Roma. That fact that he chose to play for us, when he probably could’ve joined some of Europe’s best teams, is a major coup.”

Many thought with the money TFC splashed to bring Bradley to BMO Field, plus his experience in Europe and with the U.S., that he’d be taking the captain’s armband on arrival.

source: AP
Michael Bradley, right, and Jermain Defoe are two of the most expensive players in MLS history. They’ll team up to help Toronto win it all in 2014 and beyond.

But it shows the huge admiration and faith head coach Nelsen has in Caldwell. The big Scot revealed that respect is reciprocal, as he heaped praise on Nelsen’s coaching techniques and is desperate to repay the faith shown in him by his manager.

Captaining teams is not new to Caldwell. He’s been the skipper of Burnley, Birmingham City and now Toronto, which is a role Caldwell is relishing as he leads TFC into a brave new era.

But what about the future? Can Toronto really overtake the perennial MLS powerhouses?

Caldwell has been with Toronto since the start of the sides huge rebuild, and despite hiccups along the way, the progress everyone was hoping for is finally clicking into place ahead of the 2014 season.

“When I came to Toronto at the end of last May, I still felt like we were progressing a little bit. Not as quickly as we would’ve liked, but this process is a building period,” Caldwell said. “We’ve now got a structure, a nucleus and a way we want to play. The guys who’ve been kept on this season know their jobs and roles. We’ve got the base to be a very successful team, with the likes of Defoe, Bradley and Gilberto adding to that. We need to learn how to win consistently now. Once we do that, the sky is the limit for this football club.”

Agent: Liverpool contacted Klopp only after Rodgers firing

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 09:  Jurgen Klopp arrives to be unveiled as the new manager of Liverpool FC at a press conference at Anfield on October 9, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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As soon as Brendan Rodgers was dismissed by Liverpool on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp’s name was tossed around as the likely successor to the then-vacant Liverpool managerial position.

However, according to Klopp’s representatve Marc Kosicke, Liverpool did not make contact with the German until after Rodgers had been officially let go.

“The first call from Liverpool came after the dismissal as coach of Rodgers,” Kosicke told Bild. “Before Liverpool there were naturally quite a few inquiries. But Jurgen always asked me not to take it any further.”

Club management was less committal than Klopp’s rep, but did say they had their eye on the German for some time. “We have learned to keep certain matters confidential. We had a meeting recently with Jurgen that he has talked about and I don’t want to talk too much about these conversations. But we have thought about him for a long time and everyone who knows football knows he is an outstanding manager.”

It’s relatively hard to believe Liverpool would have canned Rodgers without knowing for sure that a top-level target such as Klopp or Carlo Ancelotti were on board to replace him. It also would mean discussions of the contract terms and logistics would have moved at lightning speed, with just four days between the Rodgers dismissal and Klopp’s official unveiling.

England’s Mark Sampson on growth of women’s soccer, NWSL

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Head coach of England women’s national team Mark Sampson is a man who has had his life transformed over the past six months.

[ MORE: English women inspire a nation ]

Since England finished third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada — the Three Lionesses had failed to win a single knockout game before their exploits in Canada — Sampson and his team have been at the fore of the women’s game getting increased exposure and attendances in England.

[ MORE: Klopp dazzles on Liverpool unveiling ]

With that in mind, ProSoccerTalk caught up with Sampson to discuss his appearance at the Balanced Business Forum (BBF) in London next week, which promotes gender balance in the business world, plus we also spoke to him about what the reaction has been like in England since returning from the World Cup and his plans for his own team, and his own coaching pathway, for the future.

Q: Mark, what is it about the BBF which made you so interested in speaking and getting involved?

A: I have  been fortunate enough to work in women’s football for a number of years now and at a number of levels as well and be around some elite people on and off the field, whether that be on the pitch or away from the pitch in the boardroom. I am very passionate about women’s sport and women in business. It is a great opportunity to share my experiences, particularly over the course of the summer, where I worked with a group of women who were successful and achieved something very special. It is a unique opportunity to share those experiences.

You have seen up close the positive impact of women playing soccer at the elite level. How important is it to develop those qualities in young women?

Certainly within women’s football we have seen a huge leap in recent years in not only the quality of play on the field but the change in the dynamic in the game as a whole. We are seeing more people watching domestic football, more people supporting the international team, we are seeing more clubs move towards a more professional model, which is creating positions not only for women on the field but off the field. I think women’s football at the moment is seen as a leading light not only in women’s sport but promoting in high positions.

How does all of this slot into your long-term and short-term goals with the English national team?

From our point of view we are obviously keen to promote the team and the game. We still have a lot of work to do at growing the game, whether that be at grassroots level, domestic level or international level. We are not where we want to be at yet. We want to make sure we continue to grow and these kind of opportunities are great for us to share our experiences, share our journeys and make sure that we are continually promoting good practice in women’s sport. The FA are certainly very strong around supporting women’s coaches, grassroots development, women in the boardroom and these are great opportunities to share those experiences and push that message even further.

After being involved at Swansea City and other clubs in the men’s game, what it the biggest differences you’ve seen between men’s and women’s soccer over the years?

The most important thing to mention, always, is that football is football. The great thing is that the women’s game now is getting the respect from people outside of it that maybe it didn’t have in previous years. Certainly there is a long way to go to move it closer to the men’s game but there is far more acceptance now from the men’s game. As a sport and it has got its own identity and people support it. The likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, they are football clubs who have really got behind and jumped on the bandwagon of women’s football and have started to develop really strong models at club level, hence we are seeing better players, better programs and more bums on seats at grounds. That is probably the way for us to go, moving forward, to really connect with the men’s game and ensure women’s football is visible within their clubs.

Since the World Cup, the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in England has seen attendances rising, is that a big plus for you?

Absolutely. We are really working hard at ground level to push attendances and grow the game and to see it transpire at club matches and international matches is just a pat on the back really, for all the hard work that is going on. There has been hard work going on for many years, many years before I started working in the women’s football and here people haven’t got the rewards they deserve for the work that has been put in but now the rewards are there for everybody to see and the challenge is to continue to grow these partnerships and move the game forward. I still think we have a long way to go but this is a huge opportunity to keeping growing this game.

Can you sum up the reaction and incredible interest levels in the England women’s national team? What has that been like since you returned home after the successful summer?

The best way to describe it is, it is a different world. Jumping straight back off the plane we’ve had far more media interest, many more spectators at grounds, the girls are getting recognized in the street and people are genuinely supporting the team and excited about where this team is going. It has been great because people have been grafting away behind-the-scenes for years with the training, matches and hard work, and now to get to the point where they are being recognized for that, it is a real special time. It has given me even more motivation to keep that going and push it even further.


What is the next step for this team? You have a friendly tournament in China next month and then EURO 2017 which you are qualifying for right now. Surely you will be one of the favorites to win EURO 2017? 

As a nation like England whether that be in men’s or women’s football, you are always going to be one of the favorites for a major championship. That pressure is always going to be there. This team has been great at managing that pressure and seeing it as an opportunity and pushing it. There is a big challenge for us. We have got to always think about the big picture on this one. If we want to be winning these major championships, the World Cups and European Championships, then we have to consistently perform. To do that we need to play the best teams on a regular basis and win matches. A lot of time in international football people think you can turn up at a major tournament and turn it on for two months and go home with a trophy, but the reality of it is you need to be the best team, consistently, going into those tournaments and that has got to be our challenge in the next two to four years. Make sure we are winning football matches, growing our program and growing the game so that when we turn up at major championships, people look at England as a genuine contender.

Looking over at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the USA, what do you make of the progress they have made?

Since it has come back into the fore, it has been really important. The U.S. are a leading nation of the women’s game and when the previous pro league fell by the wayside I always felt it was important for the women’s game as a whole that America were delivering a professional league. It is great to see the crowds and the quality of the football in America, in terms of how that relates to us, we are different. The culture in England is very different to America and we have got to work out how we are going to be competitive and sometimes the best way to find a competitive edge is to find something new and do something different. We are certainly going to look at what is going on in America, learn lessons of the good and the bad and make sure we find something that works well for our team and our country about growing the game. We have certainly got to give huge credit to the States and not only the work the national team and Jill is doing but domestically. The way they’ve grown the game and their fanbase, every nation is saying that we need to find a way of doing something like this.

You are obviously focused on your job with England right now, but I wanted to ask you about your own future. There are British coaches over in the NWSL, some of your players are over there too. If an opportunity arose in the NWSL or the U.S. in the future, would you consider it? 

Every coach is always going to say they are fully focused on their current job and I am certainly no different to that. In the future there will be some new challenges and I would never say no to anything, and certainly the way the women’s game is growing, and not just for me but every coach, there are going to be more opportunities to go and work at professional football clubs with some great players and some big clubs with big crowds. For any coach that has always got to be the motivation. Can you work at the highest possible level and test yourself?

Finally, in your home country of Wales right now there is euphoria around Gareth Bale and Wales on the brink of sealing qualification to the EURO 2016 championships. How big of a moment is this for soccer in Wales?

Saturday is a huge sporting day for the entire nation in general. We have a huge game against Australia in the Rugby World Cup, followed by an even bigger game for the Welsh national team away at Bosnia in our European Championship campaign. Certainly, Welsh sport at the moment is on a real high and it would be great to see the national team qualify for a major championship. I worked with Gareth Bale as a young kid and he is doing amazing things for himself and for the game in Wales. The staff behind-the-scenes there have worked so hard for so many years to really push the game and develop that team and everyone is really confident now that they will get their reward. It would be awesome for the country to be at a major championship.